Writing on his blog Wednesday while reporting from southern Lebanon, freelance journalist and Time magazine contributor Christopher Allbritton, in what almost looked to be a throw-away line, relayed that “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.” (Emphasis ours.)
This jogged our memory of some reports earlier in the week about how journalists are getting around parts of Lebanon, and how Hezbollah is trying to shape the coverage.
One was an exchange on Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources show on CNN, in which Kurtz interviewed CNN’s Nic Robertson about reporting from Lebanon. Just a few days before, Hezbollah minders had taken Robertson on a tour of a neighborhood in southern Beirut that had been hit by Israeli missiles.
Robertson told Kurtz, “Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operation,” and in southern Beirut, “they deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas.”
He also said that Hezbollah “designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn’t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath … Hezbollah is now running a number of [press tours] every day, taking journalists into this area. They realize that this is a good way for them to get their message out, taking journalists on a regular basis.”
This is a tricky issue, disclosure-wise, but in his initial report of July 18, Robertson did tell viewers at the start that “We went in to those southern suburbs of Beirut with that media representative from Hezbollah. They haven’t let western reporters into some parts of that very, very, very carefully controlled southern suburbs … they took us in because they wanted to show us what was being damaged.” He then ended by again reminding viewers that it was a “very, very brief and swift tour escorted by Hezbollah.” The disclosure that Hezbollah acted as tour guide does put the report into perspective, but still, Robertson could have dwelled a bit more on the calculated photo op CNN’s cameras were provided by an obviously interested party. But given that he filed the report from the middle of a very hot war zone, we’re willing to cut him some slack and give him points for broaching the subject of Hezbollah’s PR initiative at the top, and at the end, of his report.
Anderson Cooper followed up this past Monday with a similar report, telling viewers that “we found ourselves with other foreign reporters taken on a guided tour by Hezbollah … They only allowed us to videotape certain streets, certain buildings.”
“This is a heavily orchestrated Hezbollah media event. When we got here, all the ambulances were lined up. We were allowed a few minutes to talk to the ambulance drivers. Then one by one, they’ve been told to turn on their sirens and zoom off so that all the photographers here can get shots of ambulances rushing off to treat civilians … These ambulances aren’t responding to any new bombings. The sirens are strictly for effect.”
Reporting from a war zone almost invariably entails certain moral or ethical compromises made on the fly that are, more often than not, necessary. If being led around by Hezbollah “press officers” is the only way for reporters to tour bomb-damaged neighborhoods in Beirut, so be it — as long as they disclose as much. Cooper did, and in the process pulled the curtain back on a tragi-comic scene that seems just as PR-savvy as it does sickeningly calculated.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
Just as disturbing, and so far flying under the radar, is Allbritton’s report that Hezbollah has copies of reporters’ passports, and may be using that as leverage over them. This in no way means that reporters are being swayed by the terrorist group, but it does bring the question of intimidation, and journalists’ ability to report freely, into focus.